Cliffhangers! Oh the cliffhangers. If you know me, you’ll know that I was thrilled when I found out that Series 9 was going to be all two parters. When Series 6 was airing and Moffat said he wouldn’t be writing many more two parters because the second part never did as well ratings wise I was very disappointed. As a Classic Who fan especially, I love the serialized format and the unique opportunities multi-part episodes allow for. I think Series 9 demonstrates exactly why that is really well.
In a meta I started but never finished, I defended Classic Who’s serialized formatting and cited it as one of the reasons I often prefer the classic series to the new series. Sure, sometimes the episodes feel like filler and the story itself drags on too long (I’m looking at you, Season 7), but overall the multi-part format allows for something we never truly get in 45 minutes of screentime. In many cases, the story doesn’t have time to fully develop before time constraints cut it short. Series 9 didn’t suffer as much in this regard.
A perfect way to highlight this difference is the usage of the sonic screwdriver/sunglasses this series compared to other series. People often complain that the Doctor literally sonics away plot holes, but in this series he rarely relied on the device. I don’t remember an instance where the Doctor used the sonic more than two or three times an episode, and never to move the plot along in a major way. There’s a reason for this. When the Doctor only has 45 minutes to figure out the monster of the week, say a few quick quips, let the special effects team do their thing, and save the day, he doesn’t have time to puzzle through every aspect of the episode. Instead, he needs a quick and easy way to move the plot along. Behold, the sonic screwdriver.
When the Doctor (and the writers) have double the time to work with, we get plot and character development simply not possible in a single-episode format. Notice how many of the first episodes in a pair were used to set up the other. “The Magician’s Apprentice” set up all the background necessary for the first episode in a series without feeling the need to go through an entire plot arc. Then, we got “The Witch’s Familiar” to deliver on everything it’s counterpart promised. “Under the Lake/Before the Flood,” probably my favorite pair this series, is a great example of this. “Under the Lake” establishes everything necessary for the payoffs in “Before the Flood” without really saying much. It builds the necessary tension, clues the viewer in to a few choice elements necessary to understand the next episode, but the plot doesn’t really progress. The whole episode is our cast of characters trying to figure out what the ghosts are, and by the end of the episode, they still don’t know. I love that. I love that we can get the Doctor’s thinking process, I love that we can see our beloved characters try and fail, and I love that through these attempts and failures we see character development impossible in such a condensed episode.
The most standout scene for me this series was the climax of “The Zygon Inversion.” All of the tension for almost an hour and a half had built up to this moment: the standoff between Kate Stewart and Bonny. This scene emcompassed everything I love about Doctor Who and scifi in general: deep, philosphical questions paired with optimism. The Doctor insists on peace; he demands it. He makes both parties agree to a better future. The buildup to this scene, the power of the scene itself, could not be possible in a one part episode. It had too much pre-established tension, too much backstroy established, and too slow a pace to survive in a 45 minute episode. These are the moments I look for in Doctor Who, and these are the benefits of multi-part stories. I feel like this series was one of the strongest in recent memory because it embraced the serialized format, and I hope that in the future, Moffat continues to give himself the freedom to write beyond 45 minute plots.